Physical Education and Democratic Virtue

I thought this was a nice article on education in America as well as on the way to approach problems in a democracy. One of the thing that bothers me most about the current political scene is its strange radicalism. You have middle class folks who are enmeshed in all of these various systems, none of which are perfect but all of which are at the very least functioning--some of them functioning quite well--and the most complex criticism that folks have is that the system must be absolutely broken and has to be radically reformed.

This way of thinking leads to the two primary vices of our political discourse: ideological blindness and naive utopianism. It's behind the push from the right to undermine government as such, the attacks on taxation as such or any idea that smacks of social concern. It's behind radicalism on the left that boils all objections down to greed, racism or class conflict. These bankrupt forms of political discourse are grounded, uncannily, in the most moderate forms of life: the middle class folks who are living fairly well, saving some money, working a job, more or less carrying out an ordinary life in, historically speaking, an extraordinary social scene: a democratic country.

How to account for the emergence of a radical political discourse among the benign form of life that makes up the majority of 21st century living in America? I have my theories. We're not so well built for banality. We need war and sacrifice and all that. So, the best way to get it is to watch it on the TV screen, get it vicariously through the popular theatre of political campaign. Yeah, we need that art. The political theater: a way to release the sour aggression of banal life. However, so long as politics remains theater, it will serve a mere psychological function--not a political one.

Ideological blindness and naive utopianism are vicious because they are impediments to thinking through difficult issues where multiple conflicting values are at stake. Living in a democracy requires understanding that my view, the way I see things, the way I would like the world to be, has to coexist with a variety of other views that are in direct tension with what I want. That's what it means to live in a democracy, and it is from this position that political discussion begins and ends. (Here I show my cards as a militant moderate; others will say, for example, that political discussion ought to begin and end with a strict and literal interpretation of the founding documents or that it ought to begin and end with a discussion of the racism and coloniality embedded in the American experiment, etc. etc.--pluralism will always rear its head.)

Ideological blindness denies the deep pluralism that is the hallmark of a democratic social scene: it claims to know the truth, absolutely, and pretends not to see that there are multiple world views that are internally consistent and yet fundamentally at odds with other points of view.

Naive utopianism also denies the pluralism of democratic life because it imagines a single form of life as "American" (say, the white middle class from the '50s or a kind of Jeffersonian agrarianism or a cowboy rugged individualism or Berkeleyan multiculturalism) as being the form of life that everyone is striving for, then pretends that the problem of politics is that no one else is working towards that ideal. The reality for most people is simply that, as the Talking Heads sing, "I wouldn't live there, if you paid me."

These two vices lead to a kind of "crisis" form of politics--a paranoid revolutionary politics intent on discovering the conspiracy behind the reasons why one particular agenda is not being carried forward. There must be an enemy keeping me from my utopia: it can't just be the fact that other people don't want to live there! Why don't other people agree with my ideas: they must be insane or have a mental disorder! And so, to go back to the article, you get teachers unions vs. reformers. Or KIPP schools vs. plain old public schools. Or elite liberal arts schools vs. public state schools. In other words, we find comfort in the same old battles: you get war, not problem solving.

Democratic problem solving requires coalition and compromise. It means tweaking, regulating, relaxing. It takes imagination, critical imagination. It is slow, and you never get everything you want. in short, it demands growing up, being an adult, realizing briefly and sporadically that you are one of many, not quite the center of the universe. That's what it's going to take to solve all of the real problems that you mention. Not just anger, more than that. Maybe that's my own naive utopia, my own radical politics. But as Bob Dylan put it: "I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours."

These are political issues, mostly, and it's hard to think that sport has a place in settling these issues, but a recent article in the New York Times by the philosopher/boxer Gordon Marino on the sweet science of boxing is helpful for thinking about how sports might serve an indirect political function. At stake in this article is exactly what to do with what seems like a natural need for aggression and what William James called "the strenuous mood" that sometimes accompanies it.

So, let's put the question out there. Do we have natural tendencies to aggression that sports can help us sublimate? Or do these activities teach us to be violent, as I am alleging that the contemporary political theater does? I think they can do either one, depending on how they are taught, and to what ends. Is the end of athletic endeavor the development of virtue or is its function one of winning at all costs? There you have the difference between physical education and the education of violence.

Experience and figures like Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Marion Jones, and Floyd Landis shows that there is no necessary relationship between sports and virtue. So much depends on what we are using sport for. I've been lucky to have great coaches who taught me to think of running as a skill of personal development; they gave me the gift of a lifelong activity that I can return to as a mode of self care. When I am running, I am calmer, more relaxed, less prone to misbehave. While my running appears from the outside to be grueling and ascetic, I find it quite pleasurable, relaxing, and calming, and I think it's because of a key point that Dr. Marino mentions. Running gives me courage by helping me separate out actual pain from anxiety about pain. Marino puts it like this: "If they stick with it for a few months, their fears diminish; they can begin to see things in the ring that their emotions blinded them to before. More importantly, they become more at home with feeling afraid. Fear is painful, but it can be faced, and in time a boxer learns not to panic about the blows that will be coming his way."

I would teach this point explicitly to my runners as a coach. Our mantra for races was "the worst pain is the imagined pain." To run well, you can't be thinking of the pain to come: you have to relax and run through whatever pain is there. This takes courage. The immediacy of sport, where courage brings real consequences, is something that our virtually connected culture misses. You can make comments online anonymously--you can inflict pain, without courage, with no consequences. A sport like boxing, cross country, football, can bring courage into clear view because the effects of courage are immediately seen.

On effect of an overly mediated virtual culture is the elimination of immediacy from the way we experience politics, so that the effects of our words and actions are not immediately felt. Is it possible to apply the lessons that sport can teach us about virtue--the courage to relax in fearful states, the patience and adaptability of method that is a cornerstone of proper training, the attunement to the effects of our action in immediate experience--to the political realm?

It seems unlikely, unless concrete bridges between sport and politics are drawn, unless a real physical education is developed. This would be a physical education not just concerned with the health of our bodies, but one interested in drawing connections between the practices of self care and the practices of community care. My sense is that the health of our political communities is written on our bodies, that these healths are profoundly and deeply connected. Unfortunately, today, for a variety of reasons, we have too few coaches who are philosophers--and too few philosophers who would be coaches. It is up to coaches, athletes, and educational administrators, and also ordinary folks to begin to make these connections explicit and thereby make them more intelligent.


  1. Nice piece. I read the essay by Marino in the NYT a few weeks ago. While I was very sympathetic to his argument, a lot of the commentary could not get past the violence of boxing. I thought that running might be the pacifist's(?) substitute for the sweet science. By that I mean Marino's ideas seemed almost equally applicable to long-distance running. Yet it's not often that people discuss the fear that's involved in running.

    It's been a few days since I first read your description about the fear of the "pain to come." I immediately recognized how significant that is in my own running. In the past few days I've been trying to let that fear--most of which is quite needless--go. Of course, this is no easy task. I think that that capacity comes with recognizing that you are capable of more than your psyche allows you. That recognition seems impossible unless you are regularly pushing yourself up to and past limits. For me this very serious pushing seems most possible in competition, under the duress of possible humiliation. Do you have any further ideas--beyond what you've eloquently outlined above--about building that ability to do away with the pain that you anticipate? Many thanks, D Smith

  2. Thanks. I enjoyed your article trying to link democratic virtue and running. As I understand it, you were considering the possibility that the sort of harmony one has with the body might model the sort of engagement one has at the level of political practice. That is a very interesting suggestion given that, as I see it, one of the main problems in democracy (unless you are Schumpeter, for whom this might be a virtue) is that as citizens we typically feel alienated from the institutions and practices that allegedly link us to the center of politics. That said, I wonder if the sort of experience you talk about could not just as easily be taken up in non-democratic political practices, as we have seen in the sort of “absorption” one participates in within violent nationalist causes. This is at least one description of what happens there. Or would you, perhaps, say that those are of a different kind of experience? Would you say perhaps that those are precisely the most violent because of some form of political idealism?

    I have been trying to think about whether in our exercise culture the sort of concern we have for the body is good or bad for political virtues. I would like to hear what you have to say about a recent post of mine:

  3. @ DSmith, sorry that it's taken me so long to respond. You make some great points. I guess that Marino thinks that the violence of boxing is actually part of what makes it a pacifistic practice. That seems to be counter-intuitive, but I think the idea is that boxing can sort of make war into art.

    Runners are, well, runners. When it comes to the anxious moment of fight or flight, we flee. But, like the boxer, we turn this flight into an art, transforming a moment of fear into power. That's our craft. (Or, at least part of it--there is a real and undeniable predatory moment in running, too. We humans are both predators and prey.) I suppose I'd resist the idea that running is more pacifistic than boxing; I think this is probably more a concrete matter of the individual and his needs than an answer that can be given in the abstract.

  4. @mewp:You are right to suggest that a certain degree of distance--I'm not sure I'd call it alienation--is necessary to democratic culture. Living in a pluralistic society means encountering differences, often feeling not quite at home, experiencing constant change. The desire to be always at home, I agree, is the root of many non-democratic practices.

    So, I need to make a distinction between "immediacy" and what you call "absorption." The immediacy I think we need more of is an immediacy between actions and consequences: this is the immediacy that we experience in physical training. It's absorption, but one in which we also get our butts kicked when we make the wrong choices. Running makes me feel at home in my body sometimes, but sometimes the immediate experience of running is that I am not at home in my body--it resists my commands, acts strangely, gets sick, tired, etc.

    Seems to me that contemporary media presents to us a lot of problems that we can take a position on but without experiencing the consequences of that position. This is the lack of immediacy that I worry about.

    Indeed, isn't this one problem with non-democratic modes of association--that the feeling of community that these modes of association give its members is disassociated from the consequences of action that the community takes. So, this community is unable to realize or intelligently process the effects it has on other communities...

    *off to check out your blog post*

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